Time waits for no man; we could be witnessing the international farewells of these ageing stars, writes Ryan Baldi.
As is the case at every major international tournament, Euro 2020 this summer will crown the graduation of some of the game’s best young talents into the echelon of the footballing elite.
It will also, though, represent a final shot at glory for a handful of European football’s most revered and successful players.
Here, we take a look at five legends of the Continental game who are likely facing their last chance at success on the international stage.
Giorgio Chiellini – Italy
In his 16 years as a Juventus player, Giorgio Chiellini has won 20 trophies, including nine Serie A titles.
But since his debut in 2004, the 34-year-old stopper is yet to claim any honour at senior international level. Although he made his Italy debut before the Azzurri’s 2006 World Cup triumph, he was not selected in Marcello Lippi’s squad and only became a regular starter the following year.
The 108-cap centre-back will turn 37 years old shortly after Euro 2020, meaning the tournament will likely represent his final shot at leading Italy to glory.
Roberto Mancini’s men impressed in their 3-0 win over Turkey in the curtain-raising game in Rome last Friday and are unbeaten in their last 28 matches. While Chiellini and defensive partner Leonardo Bonucci are no spring chickens – the latter turned 34 last month – they remain as robust a pairing as a manager could wish for.
And with one of the most well-rounded squads at the tournament and with form on their side, Italy are strong contenders.
4 – With the game against Turkey, Giorgio Chiellini plays his fourth European Championship, equaling the Italy's record of Gianluigi Buffon and Alessandro Del Piero. Timeless.#EURO2020 #TURITA pic.twitter.com/lmIWOpzUkd
— OptaPaolo 🏆 (@OptaPaolo) June 11, 2021
Luka Modric – Croatia
The strength of Luka Modric’s performances as he orchestrated Croatia’s run to the final of the 2018 World Cup helped secure that year’s Ballon d’Or for the Real Madrid playmaker.
Heavy underdogs in the showpiece event in Russia, though, Croatia were ultimately beaten by France. Now 35, Modric’s best days might well be behind him, but the former Tottenham midfielder still has the technical quality and on-field savvy to muster another deep tournament run for his national team at Euro 2020 this summer, in what might be the last realistic chance of silverware for the gifted generation of Croatian players of which he is the centrepiece.
A 1-0 opening-game defeat to England was hardly the ideal start. The four-time Champions League winner will have to inspire a greater level of performance if Croatia are to have any chance of going one better than they did in 2018.
Cristiano Ronaldo – Portugal
The word “decline” doesn’t appear to be in Cristiano Ronaldo’s vocabulary. At 36, the Juventus forward might not be quite as explosive as he once was, and his game now is much more about short bursts of penalty-area movement than the elaborate dribbling or driving counter-attacking of his past. But he still scored 36 goals in all competitions in 2020-21 and has scored 101 in just 130 appearances since his move to Italy three years ago.
Ronaldo wears Portugal’s 2016 European Championship success as a proud feather in his cap when it comes to the greatest-of-all-time debate between him and arch-nemesis Lionel Messi. But that doesn’t mean the former Manchester United and Real Madrid attacker will be resting on his laurels and reflecting on his legacy just yet. He will be intent on repeating the feat this summer.
And despite having amassed a frankly ridiculous 175 senior international caps and 104 goals, there is little indication the Portuguese superstar will call it quits before next winter’s World Cup in Qatar. But age will have to catch up with him at some point. Ronaldo will be just a few weeks shy of his 38th birthday by then, so Euro 2020, where he is backed up by one of the most talent-rich squads on show, provides the serious possibility of a crowning late-career international glory.
That would first require Portugal to navigate the “group of death”, however, which has seen them drawn alongside tournament favourites France and Germany.
Cristiano Ronaldo is set to become the ONLY player to play 5 CONSECUTIVE Euro's and the ONLY player currently active that played in Euro 2004.pic.twitter.com/s60KQ9SfZ3
— Cristiano Ronaldo Fans (@CRonaldoLive) June 12, 2021
Pepe – Portugal
While Ronaldo drew most of the attention and accolades during Portugal’s unlikely run to Euro success in 2016, theirs was a triumph built on solid defensive foundations. And their most impressive performer that summer was a different Real Madrid star – Pepe.
The experienced, aggressive central defender is now 38 years old and playing back where he first rose to prominence, with Porto. But the Brazil-born powerhouse appears no less effective a defender and leader, having helped Sergio Conceicao’s side to the Primeira Liga title in 2019-20.
With 115 senior international appearances under his belt, Pepe is only the third-most-capped player – behind Ronaldo and Joao Moutinho (131) – in a Portugal squad that, with a balance of experience and youth and no shortage of talent, appears even stronger than five years ago.